Friday, April 30, 2010

Basket Weaving, Orienteering, Tekken

by C.T. Hutt

When I read this week that the Cub Scouts were offering a new merit badge based on a young person’s skills as a video gamer I was floored. We are enthusiastic proponents of the video game medium, but even we will admit that there are limits to how far digital experiences should permeate our lives. Surely the Cub Scouts, an organization dedicated to teaching young people practical skills and encouraging them to explore the outdoors, is the wrong organization to promote the merits of an inherently indoor activity.

A quick glance at the Cub Scouts’ requirements for attaining the video game merit badge sheds some much needed light on the issue. Each required step necessary to attain this mark of recognition encourages young people to not just be gamers, but to be engaged gamers. The steps teach kids to budget their time, to pay attention to the game rating system, and most importantly to seek their parents advice on the suitability of a given title.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Permanent Collection

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Do you think there is anything interesting about Gears of War or its sequel, apart from the mechanics? Anything that will make you want to return to that game in some ill-imagined future? I'm thinking of trading them in, since they don't really offer any unique experiences I can think of, beyond the first playthrough. The story is laughable and other games have stolen their mechanics and improved them.

This is true of many games: You play through them once, maybe longer if they have some appealing mechanic or compelling multiplayer, and then you forget them forever. I enjoyed Mirror's Edge, Darksiders, the Professor Layton games, and Assassin's Creed, but I don't see myself returning to them.

A lot of people trade in every game they've finished, but I keep all my favorites. There are some works of fiction that I return to frequently; I play Half-Life 2 as often as I read Slaughterhouse-Five or watch Brazil. It is unthinkable that any of them would be absent from my permanent collection.   

Monday, April 26, 2010

Violent Video Games and the Supreme Court

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari this morning in Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants, a case regarding the constitutionality of a state law which may have serious ramifications for the distribution of video games. The state of California made the appeal, asking that the Court enable states to completely ban the sale or rental of violent games to customers less than eighteen years of age.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dasvidaniya, Martian

by C.T. Hutt

By night, the streets are hushed. To a blind man it might seem as though civilization was never established on the inhospitable soil of the motherland. The disastrous economic policies of a detached and archaic government have left the once proud civilization in ruins. Clinging to a decadent past, the tyrants of old have tightened their grip around the throat of the populace, muting their cries for reform. Even still, in a dark basement in the most rural and secluded corner of the nation a few dedicated individuals dare to huddle together and between them whisper a single word against the oppressive silence: revolution.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More Responses to Ebert

Lots of excellent responses to Ebert's article on why video games can never be art have  been cropping up since he posted it. Here are the best ones I've seen since posting my own response:

Kellee Santiago responds, explaining the talk that she gave at USC and critiquing Ebert's response to the arguments she presented in said talk.

Adam Serwer offers his perspective on the American Prospect blog.

Brian Ashcraft presents a thorough analysis of Ebert's authority as a film critic and lack of authority as a video game critic on Kotaku.

NaviFairy of takes issue with Ebert's claim that you always "win" a video game.

On a lighter note, Kirk Hamilton of Gamer Melodico has put together a flow chart which Ebert should consult the next time he sits down to write about video games.

Over at IGN, Mike Thomsen points out some of the illuminating artistic criticism that has been written by actual video game critics, and eloquently explains some of the key differences between video games and other games.

Though they certainly don't need me to link to them, Penny Arcade has offered some concise commentary, both in blog and comic form.

Send us an e-mail or comment with your favorite posts or your own responses, and we'll endeavor to compile all the best arguments here.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Why Roger Ebert Is Wrong About Video Games

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

“Obviously, I’m hopelessly handicapped because of my love of cinema…”
Roger Ebert

After reading Roger Ebert’s new diatribe against video games as an art form, I wrote an obnoxiously long, point-by-point response to his arguments. Re-reading it in a less heated state, however, I found that I continued to return to one point in particular, which may be more valuable than any other in understanding Ebert’s close-mindedness. The simple response to Ebert is this: He doesn’t know very much about video games.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Brush Your Teeth, Finish Your Raid, and Go to Bed

by C.T. Hutt

Childhood videogame addiction has become the new darling scapegoat of fussy PTAs and politicians; the phenomenon is blamed for everything from slumping test scores to childhood obesity. When a new and pervasive problem like this is introduced to society, what can be done? Who could possibly step in to save helpless citizens? Say hello to our hero: a half-baked piece of domestic legislation.

The South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced this week that they will be implementing a country wide internet service restriction for six hours every night to curb online videogame addiction in minors. The so called “nighttime shutdown” will apply to most online video games available to young people in the hope of promoting better sleeping and study habits. This decree comes in the wake of a widely syndicated news story in Korea about a couple who let their infant child die of malnutrition while they played online games. Despite its good intentions, this decision sets a disastrous precedent for the place of government in our digital lives.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Double-Take: Rewards

by Daniel Bullard-Bates and C.T. Hutt

In our double-takes, we give our informal, conversational thoughts on a specific game or topic.

Daniel: Video games reward the player in a variety of ways. Some games reward the player's progress by showing them something awe-inspiring, be it a pre-rendered cut scene or a thrilling set piece. Others use new weapons, leveling up, and other systems of player empowerment. One classic reward system is the high score; a modern analogue is the achievement/trophy systems that have recently come into favor. No matter how a game doles them out, rewards are a key element of the pacing and design of most video games. How easily one reaps a game's rewards is also a large indicator of a game's difficulty.

So what are the most effective systems? The most satisfying rewards I have ever received from video games have been intellectual ones; to be more specific, I treasure the sense of victory that comes from solving a particularly interesting, intelligent puzzle. Braid was incredibly effective in this regard. I would get frustrated for a while, fiddle around with my various options for interaction, and eventually stumble on something that worked with a sense of sudden elation. Puzzle games are enthralling because they make the player feel intelligent when they successfully complete a challenge. This formula can also lead to discouragement and self-doubt, but to me, those hard-earned intellectual victories are worth the risk of feeling like an idiot from time to time.

So what video game rewards do you most crave, and why? 

Monday, April 12, 2010

To Thine Own Game Be True

by Daniel Bullard-Bates
I remember reading Fight Club and thinking, “There’s nobody I can think of who could better do this than [David] Fincher.” It’s like it was made for him. It’s the kind of text married to someone of his talents.
-Edward Norton, AV Club Interview
One of the greatest struggles of the artist is to discover one’s areas of expertise and come to terms with one’s limitations. This can be brutal and occasionally heartbreaking: One can’t help but feel sympathy for the person who dreams of being a painter only to discover they are colorblind, or the singer-songwriter who is hopelessly tone-deaf. It can also be empowering; discovering that one has a talent for the thing they most love to do is an awe-inspiring revelation.

In an interview with us last month, Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany said that they avoid overt narratives as a company because, “None of us are professional storytellers nor have much experience in it, so why would we try and compete with games that hire extremely established writers?” A statement of this kind may seem obvious to many, but artistry is never so simple. Artistic creation is the stuff of dreams. Art tells us that we can do whatever we want to do. Kellee Santiago’s statement, to me, is both encouraging and humbling.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Release Day vs. Pay Day

by C.T. Hutt

For gamers with gainful employment and bills to pay, the fiscal impact of our favored hobby is significant. Consoles aren’t cheap and the television, sound system, and extra controllers that go along with them come at a premium; this is to say nothing about the resulting electricity bills or the cost of the games themselves. Unlike Mario, we can’t just pound our heads against brick walls until gold comes out of the stones, we work for our GPs and we work hard. Finding a good deal on games is an important consideration for savvy gamers, but doing so is complicated by the rise of digital distribution services, the popularity of DLC, and games which are released for multiple platforms. Assuming the experience is more or less uniform, why would a person pay more to play a game on their XBox when they could pay less for the same experience on a computer? Sales at brick-and-mortar stores like Gamestop and online promotions only add additional layers of confusion to the debacle. No matter how convoluted the algorithm may be to find the best price on a game there is only one rule that you always need to remember: the closer you are to the release date, the higher the price will be. So why does anyone buy a game on its release date?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Jack White, Rock Band, and Dinosaurs Fighting to the Death

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

In a news post on Kotaku, Jack White is quoted saying that new musicians need to “quit playing video games, throw away their Auto-Tune program and cut three strings off their guitar.” I don’t disagree that this combination of actions might help a person improve as a musician, but this sort of absolutist argument has become tiresome; we hear the same complaints registered against video games time and again by the older generations of musicians. They’re partially right: you’re never going to become a great guitarist by playing Guitar Hero. On the other hand, no intelligent person is playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero hoping it will turn them into a musician, and it’s not nearly as bad as the anti-video game musicians claim it is. In fact, you might get some small musical benefits out of playing a well-crafted music game.

To illustrate my point, I will have to enter into full awkward self-disclosure time: When I was living in Greensboro, North Carolina, my friend Andy and I started a story-based rock band about two dinosaurs that showed up in the present day United States, their adventures, and their inevitable Highlander-style showdown. The band was called Saurus. Our major influences were The Flaming Lips, Frank Zappa, and Jet Li’s The One. This is all true. I have proof.

Monday, April 5, 2010

PAX East Report, Part 3

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Just a few more games to talk about from the show floor.

Mafia 2 – Sebastien played this one while I watched and took some notes. The controls are very similar to Grand Theft Auto 4, but the setting is a little more flavorful and immersive. One major improvement over GTA4 is the fact that people react more realistically to the main character’s action. When Sebastien pulled a gun out, checking the controls, a passing police car stopped and police officers got out of the car and pointed their guns at him. As soon as he fired the gun, passersby began to run and scream away from the scene. It looks interesting, and if you’re in the market for a gangster game, it might hold lasting interest, but it looked far too similar to GTA4 in both setting and style to hold my interest. It’s set in the 40s and 50s, sure, but the city still looks a lot like New York City. I am experiencing an acute case of apathy regarding any more causing of mayhem in New York City.

Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands – I wasn’t even paying attention to this game, assuming that it was a quick movie tie-in for the upcoming Jerry Bruckheimer production starring shirtless Jake Gyllenhaal. The gameplay actually looks pretty amazing, though: on top of the rewinding time mechanic from the gamecube-era Prince of Persia games, they’ve added elemental combat and magic. The section I watched had the Prince freezing time and using spigots of water as poles to vault between. Some combat was shown as well, and it looked chaotic and impressive, with large numbers of enemies on screen and devastating elemental attacks being used to destroy them, along with the Prince’s impressive acrobatic attacks. This looks far more promising than I expected, and like a return to form for the Prince.

Friday, April 2, 2010

PAX East Report, Part 2

by Sebastien Bolea, Guest Writer

Here are a few thoughts on Red Dead Redemption and The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile, both games which Sebastien played on the show floor of PAX East.

Red Dead Redemption

It took about an hour and a half of waiting to get my hands on Red Dead Redemption, and the demo was only about 15 minutes, but I was happy to do it.  I've been dreaming about an open world western ever since playing Outlaws by Lucasarts back in the day, and Red Dead did not disappoint.  The demo was a quick ride through the desert to pick up a mission from a demented grave robber.  The job had me shooting my way into a mansion to get my dirty mitts on a chest full o' gold.  From start to finish, the game feels like GTA4.  Riding your horse isn't really that different from driving a car, although you can summon your ride with a whistle a la Ocarina of Time, and if you wear out the horse's stamina the proud cut stallion will buck you off.  The shooting mechanics will also feel familiar, from aiming to taking cover, only slightly more polished.  Weapons are selected on a wheel instead of cycled through a list, and your health regenerates in the style of many modern shooters.